Supplies of a nutritious and popular fruit could increase in Florida in the next few years, thanks to the research of a University of Florida professor emeritus.

William Castle, who specializes in horticultural science at UF’s Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred, is studying the viability of pomegranate production in Florida. The fruit is not currently produced commercially in the state.

Pomegranates are small, shrubby trees native to the Middle East and have apple-sized fruits with a red exterior and numerous juicy, edible arils inside. The aril covers the pomegranate seed and has a sweet, tart taste. The fruit contains healthy compounds such as antioxidants, nutrients and vitamins.

Castle, a member of UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, started the study in 2009. He and Jim Baldwin, a senior biologist at the Citrus REC, are examining nutrition and irrigation requirements, pest, weed and disease threats, maintenance needs, and genetic differences among more than 80 types of pomegranates in two locations in Central Florida — the Citrus REC and a water reuse site called Water Conserv II in Winter Garden.

The researchers enlisted the help of more than 30 growers from around the state to plant pomegranates and gauge their performance.

Castle said the study, which he started to investigate pomegranates as an alternative to citrus for small-scale producers, is showing that pomegranates grow well in Florida and have irrigation and fertilization requirements similar to citrus. Growers are considering alternatives to citrus in light of the emergence of citrus greening, a disease that poses a threat to the citrus industry.

“I personally am convinced that absolutely you can grow the plant,” Castle said. “It certainly can produce flowers, and it can set fruit. The trick now is to learn how to keep the fruit on the plant, and I think we’ll have something good.”